Literary Hub

In Mid-Life, The Wonderful Non-Deliverance of Ayahuasca

I walked through a maze of low-flung buildings and saw Jose—thin-boned and bearded—waving at me from his small balcony. His apartment was decked in a mishmash of Indian, Chinese and South American folk art. It was unusually tidy for a single man. The air reeked of incense, a cloying scent I can usually only take in small doses. Jose offered me something cold to drink, but I politely refused. Then he got right down to it. He led me into a small, darkened room with two mattresses on the floor and a table filled with a cross-cultural assortment of religious icons.

I watched him—the only Western medicine man I’d ever met—as he kneeled and prayed to one of his cherry-wood gods and then turned to me.

“Ok, so you’re sure you want to do this?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, feeling my pulse at the base of my throat.

He then took out a bottle filled with something that looked like battery acid, and served up, barista style, a shot rich with the natural hallucinogenic compound dimethyltryptamine (DMT). It was a substance I’d read could possibly help free me from the painful drift I’d been in for decades. Jose handed me my dose. I held it for a moment and looked at him. I wondered whether he might rape or murder me once I was under the drug’s influence, then reassessed his small frame and kind expression and decided that years of languishing in front of bad television movies had led to this sort of paranoia.

My fear waned, suddenly replaced by my de facto perception of any and every moment or encounter in my life—it had been anticipated, it was happening, and it was long over. Jose and I were both dead and buried as we spoke. We had burned through whatever time we had, staggered through our small fates on the earth. Somebody else occupied the apartment. Or perhaps the whole building in this working-class Madrid neighborhood had been demolished, reimagined in the erasure of new development. We were here, and we weren’t. Our absence had closed in around us.

This was in part why I had come—to rid myself of accelerated time, the anatomical warps of being human. And depression. It had become especially bad after a reporting trip on the effects of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. For two weeks, I chronicled stories of death—children and spouses crushed in an ocean that had once been the livelihood of fishing families along the country’s western coast. Hospitals that smelled of bleach and decomposition had photographs of drowned children, some with pacifiers strung around their necks, hung on the walls to help survivors identify their own.

When I returned home to South Florida, the children showed up in my dreams. I couldn’t look at a neighbor, a colleague or drivers on the road without their entire lifespans flaring in my mind. A woman would be cruising south on I95 alongside me, and in a second she would age exponentially, no longer driving, buried, gone. The fleeting appearance of cars on roads, the fugitive act of going anywhere, accentuated my sense that life and death were simultaneous. I was here, but I’d already been here. I was gone. So why leave my house?

I could barely do it. Only lying for hours on my cold floor helped. Eventually, a mix of prescription pills rejiggered things enough for me to get up, open the door and go to work. After a while, people were no longer blood-and-flesh hourglasses. I rejoined a world of muted complacency. It was a temporary fix.

*

Jose once more walked over to the glass table with its pantheon of Buddhas and Christs and Vishnus and chanted what he later explained was an invocation to La Planta. He poured a capful of liquid for himself and looked at me reassuringly, the way one looks at a frightened initiate.

We both drank what tasted like a pureed grass concoction. My heart was racing, but after a few moments of nothing, no dire reactions, it slowed to its normal beat. Jose sat against a wall with his eyes closed. He breathed long, self-possessed breaths.

Before this attempt at psychedelic deliverance, before my post-tsunami meltdown, I’d come to accept depression as a permanent part of my anatomy—like a leaking heart valve or chronic gall bladder disease. I was never clinically depressed, but something called dysthymia, a slow-churning malaise, was eating at me and, apparently, millions of others. When a doctor uttered this diagnosis years ago, I thought the word more fitting for a gynecological infection and flinched at the sound of it. Dysthymia is an epidemic of weariness that every age has its own terms for. I’ve come to prefer Joseph Brodsky’s—“pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.”

I learned my condition wouldn’t send me on a freefall to some psychiatric hospital like the one I interned in as a junior in college. I still remember the fetid carpeting of that place and the former Ivy-League professor too withered with sadness to get up from his bed to go to the toilet. The good news was I’d probably just live with some degree of functional unhappiness.

*

I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, when it was a stable, oil-powered democracy. I spent most of my afternoons padding barefoot on the cold, mottled tiles of my family’s home. Just outside my room, my dad had tied a hammock between the two pillars I was convinced held up our house. For hours I’d lie suspended in that hammock, my own amniotic sac, feeling precariously like the straps wouldn’t hold. I listened to our neighbor shoot off his BB gun in the air when our collie had woken him from a nap with her chronic, grating bark. He later died piloting the plane that went down carrying independent presidential candidate Renny Ottolina.

The plane had been sabotaged, I heard my parents reading from newspaper headlines. When we went to see the pilot’s family, our neighbors, his small daughters sat quietly and looked at their shoes—gleaming, Mary Jane shoes with lace-trim socks. I didn’t know what to say to them and thought of the black crosses that spread like moth wings across the obit section of El Universal. Their dad was now a moth hovering somewhere, big as an airplane, wanting to lift them away.

From the hammock, I also had a view of my favorite flourish in the house—a decorative, indoor fountain with a lion’s head gargoyle, dry as an empty river bed and now a small nesting ground for cockroaches. I’d wake up at 6 a.m. and collect the brittle corpses of cicadas that had sung themselves to death the night before. Their brevity on the earth inspired a dumbfounded respect. In our garden, I’d spend the morning poking around in a riot of living things: unlucky grasshoppers that ended up hostage in my pink water jug, chrysanthemums that wagged at me in the hot breeze, the languid flies of the tropics, the two cats and three dogs my family owned.

In school, I was friends with Georgina, a 7-yr old with a lisping accent and aquarium-thick glasses. She pushed me on the swings at recess, which I considered the deepest kindness. She helped me elude the noxious, blanching loneliness that had begun to set in, so when she moved away, I matured into the unproblematic but indistinct kid in the elementary classroom. I began to see myself as trackless and not fully corporeal, a ghost. I toyed with the idea of suicide. I faulted no one except myself for this sense of absence. It was simply a feature of existence I would forever try to pull or mold into a different shape, like the brittle strands of my hair.

*

In New York just after college, I’d ride for hours on the MTA’s lumbering buses back and forth across 72nd Street, down 5th Avenue, up 6th. My anonymity and insubstantial self seemed no different from the other riders; I felt acceptably invisible. Off the bus, friendships and affairs were scarce. In fact, navigating through the endless equations of human need in a city like New York was an impossible feat. Fear and depression were my default guides.

But I often missed what life had felt like before this slow leaching out. On a summer holiday in Reston, Virginia, when I was 10, my family stayed by a lake. Every day, my mother and sisters and I lay on a small pier. I loved and feared the water’s cold, green-black density. I dove in at my own peril, daring myself at each dive to reach a deeper, blacker stillness in the lake. In seconds, I scrambled back up, an earthy, mineral taste in my mouth, my body unobliterated. One day morphed quickly into the next. My nights were dreamless and restful. Every night, wrapped in borrowed blankets, I briefly resisted sleep, planting myself weakly on the day’s shifting edge.  I wanted to stay put, with my parents and sisters, and not be wash-cycled into the next block of time and the next.  But I continued to move from one day to another. And every morning, my mother was alive on the pier, lying under the sun like a pulled root, still unknown territory to the cancer that would later take hold and the marriage that would unravel.

By my mid-20s, my mother had died from the effects of a stem-cell transplant meant to cure her multiple myeloma, and time—for no one thing in particular, for everything—felt like it was running out. This is the particular irony of depression: its aimlessness is urgent. I lived in one apartment and then another. I walked for miles in a day. It was a race against diminishment, walking. But I could work. I held down jobs and even excelled at some of them. To prevent the dysthymic deadness from becoming too unbearable, I kept tamping it down with the newest SSRI combo. Sometimes I could feel the pills damming it up. But inevitably, blob-like, it’d come seeping back.

When I got pregnant, it was an unspoken shock to friends and family. I’d pulled off becoming a long-term girlfriend and mother. I figured I could effectively hide the deadness from my partner— until he started to suspect I wasn’t all there. “It’s like talking to a wall,” he told me one day after I didn’t respond to something he had said. He worried about our life together. “We just coast along from one day to another with no plan.”

With a family at stake, I knew I needed some sort of experiential jolt to survive my latest deadness relapse and rescue my small son from life with a zombie parent. And to slow time. A short investigation and a friend’s reference led me to Jose—bookish trip sitter par excellence in Madrid, where I´d settled with my family. He was an expert in hallucinogenic plants. His website radiated kaleidoscopic colors and held neatly packaged information about entheogens. The featured drug: ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew used in the Amazon to cure all sorts of spiritual and bodily maladies.

*

When I met Jose at a café for a screening interview he requires of all potential clients, I asked him about his experiences administering the drug. He said most of his clients worked in the Spanish television and movie industry, and they included many well-known actors. Then he pulled out a yellowed, leather-bound agenda to see when he could fit in my ayahuasca session.

At the time, I’d barely heard of ayahuasca. I was unaware of the promising clinical trials of psychedelics tracked by research centers such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and carried out in top universities, including Johns Hopkins and Harvard. These institutions have achieved a new legitimacy for psychedelic research, which was all but stamped out in the 1960s due to government restrictions. The latest studies, I’d soon learn, suggest a future where a one-or-two-time dose of psychedelic compounds like psilocybin could well outperform today’s dulling, libido-stripping meds. I was also unaware of the potential dangers of ayahuasca, which contains the illegal psychoactive substance, DMT.

After I left Jose, I scoured the Internet for articles. I read about Peru’s ayahuasca tourism. I read about the blazing heights and black depths where ayahuasca will lead. I read about the rare overdoses and deaths, and about a burgeoning ayahuasca trend among actors, musicians, yuppies and computer programmers. I talked to a French life coach familiar with the drug who advised me against it. And then, feeling my dysthymia shift positions, the way an old cat yawns, stretches and settles back into its nap, I decided against cancelling my appointment.

After a week of abstaining from alcohol and meat (Jose advised me to cleanse my body in order to better receive the plant’s “wisdom”) I found myself in a taxi cab, mid-life, careening down an urban highway to my first acid trip.

But 20 minutes after drinking the ayahuasca, nothing had happened.

“I don’t feel anything,” I said.

“Just relax and let yourself go,” Jose said without opening his eyes. Then he got up and told me he’d be right outside if I needed anything. I was a bit unnerved by his departure from the room. I hadn’t expected a multitasking trip sitter.

For several minutes, or as long as half an hour—time felt insufferably slow in the airless room—I tried to ignore a strange pressure building up in my chest. It was the music, I thought. It was making me sick. Jose had put on one of those world music CDs released by outfits like Putumayo, replete with Andean pipes and drums. Its generically indigenous sound was making my organs shift.

Then I began to lose track of my breathing, of the inhalations and exhalations. Had I skipped a breath? Had I remembered to fill my lungs with air? I called out for Jose.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Turn off the music. I don’t feel well,” I said.

He turned it off. But the pressure, or perhaps the worst dread I´d ever known, kept welling up until I was squirming on Jose’s threadbare carpet.

“I’m dying,” I said, believing it.

“Just let yourself go. If you resist, it´ll be worse,” Jose said and gathered me up from the floor. He hung an arm around me that felt like a cold vine.

I was deeply sick. For what felt like hours, I roiled in illness and plastic grocery bags. Something was shredding my ego, its sinewy, muscular walls, to bits. I listened to a man’s voice mocking every thought I had. I saw a hot-air balloon I was supposed to get on; it was taking off and I was missing it. Temperamentally risk-averse, I was sure I’d die once I got on, so I clawed at the floor and played it safe. And felt sicker. “Just go with it!” Jose yelled. He looked panicked at one point and rummaged in his kitchen for a sedative. He had none. He offered me a cup of black tea, which I threw up. I had the fleeting suspicion he was a neophyte in the trip-sitting department. He was more of a hallucinogens scholar. It suddenly seemed unlikely that any TV actors had hunkered down in this apartment with him.

But eventually the painful suspicions crowding my mind lifted, and the illness stopped. The drug was no longer a poison killing me, but a thick root that had materialized in my body, snaking its way from the base of my spine to my throat, pushing out a sort of toxic waste.

Jose disappeared. I was weightless and unafraid, and standing on a hill overlooking a fast-moving river that reminded me I’d never be a white-water rafter. Within seconds, I began the ritual ayahuasca sobbing—a vision of myself as stunted and inept rose like smoke. I saw the seductive, black spell of my decades-old loneliness.

My father’s image appeared before me. An Israeli arms dealer who sold military radios and fighter jets to the Ecuadorean government, he hadn’t been around much when I was growing up. I’d been wary of him, of his heavy gait and thick sideburns whenever he walked into our house after one of his many trips. Next to him, I was diffuse and unformed, the shy, amorphous daughter of a charismatic businessman and practicing bigamist whose wives and daughters spanned from Venezuela to Ecuador. But now, momentarily, the barriers of mutual estrangement were gone, and I saw a snapshot of us embracing.

With that, I felt a quick and painful reordering in my body, as though badly set bones were being broken and realigned. I was consumed with a factual love for my father, my mother, for anyone I’d ever crossed paths with. Words about forgiveness and unity, messages that I would have previously mocked as New Age bromides, struck me with absurd clarity. Human language restored itself to the freshness and meaning with which all children enter it. My panicked grasp on existence loosened, and a sense of the utter rightness of things, of the perfection of life, with its lunacy and disruption, carried me.

When I came to around five hours after I had drunk the ayahuasca, Jose had a look of anguished relief on his face. I’d been weeping for hours and my face was caked with dried tears.

“The world is an amazing place,” I said over and over.

“Right,” he said.

“You’re one of God’s helpers.”

“Uh huh.”

I staggered to my feet, and he helped me. I felt newborn and molten. And I had no money for a cab after paying Jose for his services. Nevertheless, he walked me protectively to the metro station when my husband couldn’t pick me up. He looked proud of himself, like Charon delivering a stray soul back to the living shore.

On the walk to the metro, I laughed out loud. I was alive again, as alive as the 5-year-old who’d trapped grasshoppers and studied dead cicadas. I wanted to announce this to the train passengers, that my resuscitation had come in Amazonian liquid form, but a feebly restored sense of etiquette stopped me. So instead I studied with fascination the lines and angles of every human face. This probably looked creepy to anyone who might have caught my gaze, but at that point I loved them too much to give a damn.

*

Years after my trip, the specter of bankruptcy or divorce or this country’s fragmentation will wake me up at 2 a.m. Friendships remain elusive. After a move to South Florida, depression routed its way back, requiring meditation, yoga, Buddhist texts, anti-depressants, benzodiazepines, a two-day hospitalization, and, briefly, anti-psychotic drugs used for extreme anxiety. Still, I hurtle towards aging and decrepitude with a lighter heart. I’m free of the wasting deadness that for years slept behind a bone-hard barrier the ayahuasca broke down.

Do I feel the need to try it again? No. Nor would I recommend the stuff, with the risks involved, to anyone. As Alan Watts once said of psychedelics, “When you get the message, hang up the phone.”

But when scientific research integrates the benefits of ayahuasca and other psychedelics into an effective, controlled treatment, then life-long depression sufferers may have their portal back into a world of birth and color. On an ayahuasca high, I got the sense that migrating through the space of childhood homes, school halls, bachelor pads, cancer wards, offices, the bleak transience of airports—something, even if it’s a brief reckoning of our own power or gleeful insignificance, has our backs. That’s the mental state I glimpsed—one where life is movement and potential, free of the crippling weight so familiar to the depressed, yet grooved with the fault lines of one’s own solipsism.

Short of these trippy insights, I go back to the sobering words of Joseph Brodsky: “What’s good about boredom, about anguish and the sense of meaninglessness of your own, of everything else’s existence, is that it is not a deception.” Mull on that, and you’ll make your way to real compassion, Brodsky said.

These days, a more profound, less psychedelic high descends every once in a while. It comes under the acreage of a hot sun, watching lizards pulse across the garden with their stricken look, or listening to my son jam on his keyboard, marking rhythms, poised on his own sound.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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